I’m sure there are many theories and methods about how to learn a foreign language. Everybody has different circumstances and the current skill levels will vary by person, so although there’s not one best method that will work for everyone, I want to share a little bit from my own experiences in hopes of helping those of you trying to learn a foreign language for translation.
For me, English is a foreign language. I never even heard any English during the speech development period in my childhood, so I learned English purely as a foreign language. So, when I see people who’ve encountered English at a young age and have acquired the basic framework of English, I really envy them because they naturally acquired what I had to struggle with as a student and as an adult to understand. (Of course, I’m sure they also worked hard in their own way to acquire it.) I will give two pieces of advice for those of you who, like me, are trying to master English as a foreign language.
When sitting at a desk
In my opinion, the best way to learn English as a foreign language is to memorize a sentence as a whole. Instead of memorizing the meaning of each individual word, familiarizing yourself with the grammar, and then combining that knowledge into a sentence, I think you should memorize a whole pre-written sentence that’s already being used and devour it. And do that all the time. When a good sentence comes up while reading, memorize that sentence on the spot. If you look up a word and then move on after briefly reading the meaning, that’s a total waste of time. Don’t do that. Instead, since you’ve already looked up the word, memorize the example sentences that use that word. Memorize sentences non-stop like this when sitting at a desk. Memorize, write down on paper what you memorized, read aloud what you wrote down… If you do this, you’ll start to feel like you’re starting to digest English.
The best way to learn English as a foreign language is to memorize a sentence as a whole. Click To Tweet
Since you’ve already heard this eating analogy, I will go a bit further. I think deciding to study grammar and memorize individual words to write or interpret sentences is like analyzing all the different kinds of vitamins and nutrients the human body needs and then taking various kinds of vitamins and supplements. That method is exhausting, complicated, difficult, and has too much room for error. It’s much better to chew and eat real food instead. Just eating a whole apple is a hundred times better than taking vitamin C tablets and eating a cereal rich in fiber. It will obviously taste much better as well. If you just enjoy an apple at a meal instead of analyzing what nutrients the apple contains, doesn’t your body later on automatically send the essential nutrients to different parts and use them as needed? It’s like that.
If you use this method, your English will also be more natural. Even without your knowing, you are getting the hang of what to say in different situations. You will naturally pick up grammar and even get familiar with so-called example sentences. To be honest, I find it funny that I’m telling you this, because when I studied English using this method, I didn’t consciously think, “I will do this because it will have this effect…” I just did it. Ever since I was in middle school. I don’t even remember who advised me to do this. However, at some point I realized that it was a very good method and continued to study that way ever since. As I’ve said earlier, I don’t want to argue that this is the best way or the only way. But in my experience, it’s definitely an extremely effective method.
There’s one thing to note: just as you should learn from the best teacher when trying to learn anything, you should memorize good phrases and sentences when using this method. I met a young man who came to Toronto to learn English, and he kept inserting the phrase “you know” all over the place. It was pretty annoying to hear, because he kept repeating it even though it had no meaning. He was a young man I cared about, so I nosily asked him why he kept saying “you know” so much. He then told me that spoken language is learned through copying and imitating, so he was imitating the English that his friends spoke. Then, I understood. His method was good, but he was imitating young friends who weren’t properly educated and spoke without much thought. That’s why he kept saying “you know” so much. This kind of expression is called a filler, and it’s fine to use occasionally while thinking about what to say next, but the overuse of fillers doesn’t make it sound as if you’re fluent in English but rather irritates the listener and can easily give the impression that you have a lower level of education. So to think that this young man modeled his speech after friends who habitually overused fillers… Applying this lesson to memorizing sentences, you should ingest well-constructed sentences. If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, something like a speech by President Obama could be a good study material, don’t you think? There are also collections of good phrases to be found if you look on the Internet (try searching for “inspirational quotes”, for example). Anyway, if you memorize the best sentences written by the best writers, you will start to get a sense of the taste of English.
When not sitting at a desk
I don’t think a foreign language can be conquered sitting at a desk. Language has a very wide scope. How can you possibly cram all those words, all those sentence structures, and all those expressions into your head while sitting at a desk? You’re not a studying machine. However, there’s good news. It’s that language can be mastered through repetition. The reason that this is good news is because anybody can do it if they’re serious enough about it and make an effort for long enough. What I’m trying to say is that persistently making an effort is the hard part and that although range of the things you must become familiar with is wide, language is definitely not something that’s so difficult that ordinary people can’t master it.
Language is definitely not something that’s so difficult that ordinary people can’t master it. Click To Tweet
In that context, the word that I dislike the most is “linguistics”. I mean, how is learning English (or any other specific foreign language) the same thing as studying “linguistics”? The two are completely different. Linguistics is the basic study that explores the principles of language and it is purely academic. I’ve never even been near it, but after speaking with a linguistics major, it seems like it’d be very perplexing and difficult. But the problem is that people always seem to say they’re “studying linguistics” when they should say they’re “learning English (or other languages)”. Phrasing it and thinking about it in such a way is the reason why people aren’t able to learn language comprehensively and retentively, which is primarily based on listening and speaking. Learning English (or any other foreign languages) is not a study. It is a habit that seeps into your entire body through incessant repetition. In English-speaking countries, the rich, the poor, the smart, and the not-so-smart people alike all speak English (although there might be a difference in level). I feel like I’m going to stray from my blog’s original territory into the different topic of learning English if I keep going, so I’m going to stop here. But I have one last point: saying that you can’t speak a foreign language because you lack the intelligence is a lie. Even if you believe that, it’s only because you’ve been studying using the wrong method due to a misconception.
Learning English is not a study but a habit that seeps into your body through incessant repetition. Click To Tweet
Back to the point, English is easy; there’s just a lot that you have to do.
So then, how can we master English a little more easily and a little more quickly? The answer is: through repetition. In other words, quantity over quality. So, don’t try to study English too seriously with clenched teeth. If you do that, you will just get tired more quickly and you’ll ruin your teeth. 😀 Instead, just relax and try to approach English as pleasantly and enjoyably as possible for as many hours as you can. The reason for this is so that you can benefit from the amazing effects of “repetition”. Rather than riling up the passion in your eyes to understand some profound principle of English and frowning while struggling to retain the definition of every word you memorize, it’s a hundred times wiser just to clear your head and chuckle along to a funny movie. This method might feel less satisfying to you since it won’t feel like studying, but you have to let words and expressions seep into your body by listening to English over and over using this method. It’s said that when you listen to something on repeat, your brain retains it, thinking, “Oh, this must be important.” Using this method is like telling our brains to remember the expressions and important words that are actually used often. All while chuckling at a funny movie or something.
A foreign language comes at you much more quickly when you’re listening to audio than when you’re reading a book, so this can feel difficult to someone who’s just started learning a foreign language, and a lot of the time they can actually miss what’s being said. Even so, this can still give you the great effects of repetition. So, reap the benefits of the repetition effect through sound by listening to audio files, audio books, podcasts, radio programs, movies, etc. What’s the big deal if you miss a little bit of what’s being said? So what if you don’t understand everything? What’s really going to happen if the sounds of the radio are a bit masked by the shower while you’re washing your hair? Just let it go and let it flow by. If you keep listening with your mind at ease, you will one day experience your “ears opening” like a miracle. It’s said that you must repeat something at least thirty times in order to memorize it. If you try to do that while sitting at a desk, it’ll be very difficult and you’ll forget it quickly, but if you listen to something repeatedly through sound, you’ll come to know it naturally. Of course, this method will be more effective if you use it in conjunction with the method of studying at a desk that I talked about earlier.
Try combining the above two methods appropriately. When you have the time and energy, and are able to sit at a desk, use the former method. On the other hand, use the second method when you’re tired, are unable to sit at a desk, are doing other things (driving, exercising, washing the dishes, in the bathroom, etc.), or want to enjoy yourself. I dealt with this in more detail in the post about time management that kills two birds with one stone. I strongly recommend that you read that post also.
Finally, one more thing. Enjoy learning English. You can do the both of the above methods while enjoying yourself. Don’t think to yourself, “I’m going to do this to make a lot of money in the future!”, but rather continue down this path while considering the polishing and refining of your language skills as a part of your identity and as a part of your life process. Could a painter create a masterpiece if he started painting with the mindset of, “I have to create an artwork worth at least $100,000…”? Will his ability improve? Learning a foreign language is the same. Language learning is actually quite fun in itself. Enjoy it. If you continue to memorize English sentences, you will later be able to think in English. And it’s a little different from thinking in Korean, for example. I’m not deep enough to be able to describe that difference, but anyway, it’s a different way of thinking. Perhaps I can say that your thoughts become more direct and straightforward since there’s always a subject and verb? Also, perhaps I can say you will think with more accurate logic? On the other hand, I think you can express your feelings and emotions more delicately and freely when thinking in Korean. Also, because Korean tends to be a much more contextual language, things like context and what came right before it are much more important than they are in English. I don’t know what other people think about this. Anyway, noticing these kinds of differences little by little as you polish your English skills is fun in itself. I wrote this in a previous post, but they say that a genius can’t compete with a hard worker and a hard worker can’t compete with someone who enjoys the work itself. Let’s study while enjoying the above two methods as much as possible! To everyone who has decided to study English for the rest of their lives (myself included), good luck!
A genius is no match for a hard worker, and a hard worker is no match for someone who enjoys it. Click To Tweet
Now, attention please!
Laura and I created an English course specifically for translators: 10 Simple Yet Powerful English Grammar Lessons for Non-Native Translators E-Course.
Also, for those who need to proofread English translation, check this course out: How to Proofread Your English Translation as a Non-Native English Translator E-Course.
To see all the courses, simply go to Translation Courses.